April 29th, 2008 at 6:26 pm
I was disappointed in reading The Happiest Man in the World to learn that it was not about me.
I have felt certain, for some years now, that I have been followed off and on by a writer from the New Yorker who has been clandestinely observing and recording my life so that he could later filter it into gripping, affecting prose that would convincingly illuminate my unassuming, humble happiness.
Instead, Alec Wilkinson had been tailing one David Pearlman, or Poppa Neutrino.
And for the better. This compact telling of Neutrino’s many odd and divergent adventures makes for a remarkable biography; a biography distinctly detached from the traditional regurgitations of war heroes and world leaders and celebrities that often serve little more than to reinforce sentimental nostalgia and hackneyed myth.
Similar to the way Schulz and Peanuts mustered a decent tale out of a boring man’s life, The Happiest Man in the World is an entirely fascinating read about a bum. Yes, a bum. Nothing against bums, forgive my predetermined assumption about the interest-quotient and book-worthiness of bums, but I’m not the one writing and publishing the glut of biographies on war heroes, world leaders, and celebrities.
And Poppa Neutrino really isn’t a bum. Well, he is, but in reading The Happiest Man in the World, you’ll learn many other great phrases for these get-a-job-get-married-get-a-house-challenged individuals, like “modern day aborigine.” But for all intents and purposes, Neutrino is what most of us would consider a bum. He is often homeless, he panhandles and performs on the street for money, he hitchhikes, and salvages discarded materials. After reading this book, you will think twice before sticking your nose up at that bum on the corner asking you for loose change. He or she may very well be famously profiled in a book by a writer from the New Yorker detailing their diverse life of serving in the Korean War, becoming an ordained Baptist pastor, inventing football plays, working as a painter, musician, and in the circus, and sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in a home-made raft.
Wilkinson’s brief encapsulation of Poppa Neutrino’s life is captivating. The chapters are short, the subject is enchanting, and the storytelling is detailed without being exhaustive and burdened by analysis and judgment. That’s not to say it is completely objective (God, wouldn’t that be boring!). Wilkinson does allow himself some sparse commentary, but mostly confines it to Chapter 1 of Part Two with observations like, “If he had in him a shred of materialism, I am persuaded that his cleverness, his resourcefulness, and his vitality would have made fortunes, and his story would be conventional.”
Reading Wilkinson’s account of Neutrino, I got the feeling that he was committed to Neutrino the man and not just Neutrino the character of his next book that, please for the love of god I hope sells so I better try to make this really fucking interesting and spice it up with every last speck of dirt I have dug up on the guy. Wilkinson must have done some extensive interviewing and research, sure, but it is his subject, the interminable Poppa Neutrino, that shines through.
So thank god for Alec Wilkinson having the good sense to get out of the goddamned way of such a singular person and doing us all a service by sharing Neutrino’s life in clean, simple sentences that are precise and refreshingly void of any elegiac schmaltziness.
The Happiest Man in the World is damn fine storytelling.
And I look forward to “The Happiest Woman in the World.”